Four Brands, One Focus
WellPet continues to build on its long history as an innovator of natural pet nutrition by constantly looking to improve the products offered under its Wellness, Old Mother Hubbard, Holistic Select and Eagle Pack brands.
How is it that a company steeped in nearly a century of tradition can consistently stay on the leading edge of some of the most significant product trends within the pet care market? While the idea may seem counterintuitive, that is exactly what WellPet has accomplished over its storied history—to the benefit of pet specialty retailers across the country.
WellPet’s roots go back almost 90 years, to when Old Mother Hubbard Natural Dog Treats was founded in 1926—an origin story that is unique, to say the least. “The way the story goes, there was a fisherman out at sea who threw a biscuit to his dog and the dog really enjoyed it, and that formed our first brand, Old Mother Hubbard,” says Camelle Kent, chief commercial officer for the Tewksbury, Mass.-based company.
Building off of that first biscuit, which was originally developed as a wholesome snack for human consumption, the Old Mother Hubbard brand steadily grew as it remained committed to the tradition of producing oven-baked dog treats from a variety of all-natural ingredients like chicken, cheddar cheese, apples, carrots, sweet potatoes and oatmeal. Then, after seven decades of focusing on healthy treats, the company blazed a new trail in the pet food category with the introduction of its Wellness brand in 1997.
“As [former CEO] Jim Scott evolved the Old Mother Hubbard business, he saw an opportunity for pets to eat more healthily, just like humans,” says Kent. “So, he brought in some really talented animal nutritionists and built the Wellness brand up from scratch. The whole point was to use really high-quality ingredients, and it was one of the first natural pet food brands to come onto the market.”
The Wellness brand was not only innovative in its approach to formulating pet diets, it was also far ahead of the field in its approach to marketing wholesome, natural pet nutrition—a philosophy that the company stays true to nearly two decades later. “You still hear it in our office all the time, ‘We sell Wellness one bag at a time,’” says Kent. “It’s all about educating people on the importance of nutrition being at the center of a pet’s well-being.”
Not surprisingly, Wellness quickly grew popular with independent pet specialty retailers, which were uniquely situated to sell the emerging pet food concept represented by the brand. And as the movement toward natural nutrition gained more traction with pet owners, the company found itself at the forefront of an explosive trend that continues to gain momentum today.
Around 10 years ago, Wellness and Old Mother Hubbard were joined by two popular pet food brands that shared the same healthy, wholesome approach to pet nutrition—Holistic Select and Eagle Pack—to create WellPet, a company that has in many ways proven to be greater than the sum of its parts.
According to Kent, among the many benefits of bringing all of these category-leading brands under one umbrella were the efficiencies and controls that it brought to production. “Holistic Select and Eagle Pack had a fantastic factory in Mishawaka, Ind., and the merger allowed the kibble to be produced at one facility, which was important given how fast Wellness was growing,” she explains. “As a result, Mishawaka became the center of excellence for producing high-quality, natural food.”
While WellPet has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, the company has held onto the small-company approach that has been essential to consistently producing the level of quality for which all four of its brands are known. This is an accomplishment that Kent says wouldn’t be possible without having the right team and right ownership in place.
“It all really comes down to the people [in the company],” she says. “Many of them have been here since the formation of Wellness or the formation of Holistic Select. Because of how we operate, and the fact that we are lucky enough to still be independent and family owned—by the Berwind family—we are able to stay focused on doing what we believe is right from a nutrition standpoint. Those elements are firmly in place and do not change as we grow.
“We are always pushing the envelope from a recipe innovation standpoint. We’re always looking at human food trends and the best approach to pet nutrition, as well as the engagement that pet parents want to have with their pets at feeding time, to make more innovative products—whether it’s Divine Duos, which is a wet cat food product that has paté on the bottom, and cuts and gravy on the top; or TruFood, which is a baked product that has freeze-dried fruits and veggies, as well as superfood nuggets, and really leverages the raw-inspired feeding [trend].”
According to Kent, this ongoing commitment to advancing pet nutrition is one of the biggest benefits that WellPet can offer to its retailer partners in the pet specialty channel. “We think that innovation is the way that we can help pet specialty differentiate itself from food, drug and mass, which is trying to come after the natural pet food [customer]. If [independent retailers] have new, innovative items that show consumers that they understand the needs of pet parents, they will always have a point of difference from those other channels.”
While a high level of innovation is not exclusive to any single brand within the WellPet family, many of the company’s latest new nutritional concepts and products have been rolled out under the Wellness label, with TruFood serving as a prime example.
“What we were seeing was that while [the raw food category] is big—it’s at about $230 million [in sales] and growing at about 30 percent per year—there are a lot of people who are interested but nervous about trying it,” says Kent. “Maybe they’ve tried it and found it a bit too complicated, or they only feed it on weekends, because they haven’t got time to do it during the week when they’re rushing out the door. What TruFood does is it provides pet owners with many of the benefits of feeding a raw diet without any of the complications—the mess or the concerns about safety.”
Moving forward, retailers can expect to see WellPet continue to expand the TruFood line with products that make it easier than ever for pet owners to take the next step in delivering high-quality nutrition to their animal companions. “Maybe it will be a topper that people can put on [a pet’s food] or maybe a mix that doesn’t require the pet owner to do everything from scratch,” Kent says.
The Wellness CORE line is another area in which WellPet’s product development team has been, and will continue to be, busy. The grain-free diets marketed under the Wellness CORE label represent the company’s fastest-growing high-protein dog food line, but according to Kent, that does not mean the company is willing to rest on its laurels. “We will continue to drive our CORE business, moving into areas such as air-dried [formulas], which allows us to get a higher protein level, and introducing things like CORE Chunky Centers, which has paté on the outside and chunks and shreds of meat on the inside. So, CORE will continue to bring very meat-centric products to the market,” she says.
WellPet also plans to continue expanding the presence of its Wellness brand in natural cat nutrition, a category in which the company’s approach is not merely to translate canine formulas for feline consumers. “We develop our cat portfolio completely separately from our dog portfolio,” says Kent. “We’re really excited about some of the science-based, natural foods that we can bring to the category, like a newly-launched hairball-control recipe.”
Another brand through which WellPet will continue to play the role of innovator in the pet nutrition category is Holistic Select, which Kent describes as a line of natural foods with the added benefit of digestive health support. “Of all of our brands, I think that Holistic Select may have the most unique positioning and the most loyal following,” Kent says of the line, which is exclusive to the independent pet specialty channel. Here, she says the most exciting development that the company is working on is a prebiotic and probiotic coating—originally developed for TruFood—that further enhances the digestive support for which Holistic Select diets have become well known.
“You will be seeing us come out with new and improved formulas across the line,” says Kent. “And you will also see us continue to focus on unique proteins to help independent pet specialty retailers differentiate their offerings.”